Category Archives: Backyard Flocks – General Info

Just interesting stuff about backyard flock keeping

Euthanasia for Backyard Birds

This is a post I have been wanting to write for a long time, but hesitant to take on.  I have done A LOT of work with the professional poultry producers in the past couple years, teaching the best euthanasia techniques and procedures.  It is possibly the biggest contribution I will make in my career to animal welfare.  I believe that it is part of the responsibility of any animal owner to reduce the suffering of any animal in their care, and euthanasia is an important part of that.  I have also been asked by many of you in my comment section for advice, and have seen a LOT of questionable things floating around on the internet.

One thing I will never do is tell an owner WHEN it is appropriate to euthanize.  You need to make that decision based on your values, ethics and experience.  I have my opinion of whether it is humane to try to set a broken leg on a chicken and try to get her to recover.  You have your opinion.  Both of our opinions are based on how we compute pain endured vs the value of extending a life.  As long as we both consider the situation, and make the decision based on the welfare of the animal, we are both right.  Of course, we are both wrong as well.  Nobody, regardless of experience, ever euthanizes at the perfect time….we do our best and have to live with the decisions.

Euthanasia definitely does not have to be a “do it yourself” process.  Veterinarians will euthanize birds in most cases….often they do not feel comfortable diagnosing or treating, but will still perform this important service.  If the cost, distance or circumstances preclude you using a vets’ services, I would far rather see you do the job properly yourself, than botch something as important and emotional as this.

Now, some general information about euthanasia.  I consider these facts, and have spent a lot of time and study convincing myself of these truths:

  1. Euthanasia is an effective tool in improving the welfare of an individual or group of animals
  2. Euthanasia is more often performed too late, rather than too early.  More birds suffer needlessly because their keepers aren’t willing to perform the job than suffer a needless early death.
  3. Euthanasia is NOT about making a bird dead.  The crucial part is making the bird unconscious quickly.  I can soak a bird in kerosene, and light it on fire…..it will ALWAYS end up dead, but this is NOT euthanasia.  Once a bird cannot feel pain or fear, the method used to kill the body is almost irrelevant, for the bird’s welfare.
  4. The “appetizing” factor in any method of euthanasia is not relevant to the bird’s welfare.  If the bird bleeds, or goes through convulsions, or the act looks violent, the method may still be very humane.  The “yuck” factor is an important component of the effect on the “doer”, and this is something to take into consideration, but doesn’t necessarily affect the well-being of the bird.
  5. Treating an animal with respect will always result in better welfare for both the animal and yourself.  If you are doing the best technique you can, and making decisions based on what is best for the bird, you can feel good about what you do.

With these truths in mind, I am going to describe two methods of euthanasia for backyard poultry keepers to consider.  They should be appropriate for the vast majority of people who raise chickens on a small scale.  I will describe them in gory detail, and will tell you HOW they work, and why they are humane.  There are other methods that are humane….I have chosen the most accessible methods that I think will be most useful for small flock owners.  If you are squeamish, you may want to stop reading now.

Cervical Dislocation

Cervical dislocation  is humane, if done properly.  The benefits of this method is that it can be done immediately after identifying that a bird should be euthanized, and needs no tools.  It causes unconsciousness in around 40 seconds after being applied, and is very repeatable….that is, it works every time it is done properly.  The way cervical dislocation causes unconsciousness is by stretching the neck, dislocating the joint at the base of the skull.  This causes the spinal cord (which is very elastic) to snap, and the resulting recoil causes brain damage and unconsciousness through concussion.  It causes death by breaking the blood vessels (carotid arteries and jugular veins) so that the brain runs out of oxygen.

Cervical dislocation is NOT effective if the dislocation occurs far down the neck (figure 2), if the neck isn’t stretched lengthwise (“breaking the neck” doesn’t make the bird unconscious….it will die, after several minutes), or if bones are crushed in the process. Spinning the bird (referred to sometimes as the “helicopter” method) is unacceptable, and the “broomstick” method is questionable, depending on technique….if you put too much weight on the broomstick, or stand on it too long, you are causing unnecessary pain and discomfort.  The technique that works best, and is recommended by veterinarians and welfare associations is as follows:

  • Hold the bird by the legs, tight to your bodyposition
  • Grasp the bird by the head, either between the two fingers of the dominant hand, or by the thumb and first finger around the neck

hold1                 hold2

  • Tilt the birds head well back, so it points towards the tail of the bird (this position aligns the joints so that it is much easier to dislocate the head from the neck)
  • Firmly push the head away from your body until you feel the head separate (you will definitely feel the joint let go)
  • Pinch just behind the head to ensure that the head has separated from the neck.  You will feel a definite gap, and it will feel like there are 2 layers of skin between your fingers.

pinch

  • The bird will convulse and go into spasms….this is normal, and results from the loss of central control over the muscles.  The movements do NOT mean the bird is conscious or suffering.
  • Always ensure that the euthanasia has been effective by monitoring the bird until after convulsions stop and you can observe lack of breathing and that you cannot hear a heartbeat, either by listening to the chest with a stethoscope (if you have one), or by placing your ear against the birds chest.

Decapitation

Decapitation is an effective, humane method of dispatching a suffering animal.  It is NOT instantaneous, but very quick, with unconsciousness usually occurring within 15-20 seconds.  Unconsciousness occurs when the head is removed, and the Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) escapes from the cut spinal cord.  CSF is a fluid that acts to keep the brain and spinal cord “floating” inside the skull and spine…..by letting this escape, the brain will come in contact with the skull, causing concussion and unconsciousness.  Obviously, death will follow because of loss of blood flow to the brain.  An important factor in this method is that the head MUST be completely removed.  Cutting the major vessels and bleeding the bird out is not humane.  Yes….the backyard slaughter method used by many small flock owners is NOT acceptable.  If you cut all the blood vessels in the neck, the bird will stay conscious until the oxygen in the brain runs out…..3-4 minutes later.  It is called exsanguination (or “bleeding”), and is identified as an UNACCEPTABLE method of killing a bird by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association).  If you want to bleed a bird (ie for slaughter), you must make it unconscious first.

Other things to consider when euthanizing via decapitation, are that the blades used must be sharp, and the head must be removed in one cut.  The blade, or the scissors must be large enough that one motion completely removes the head.  Scissors are helpful as they improve human safety.  Axes and knives work very well, but you must be careful!  A stump with 2 nails driven in about an inch apart is a good way to hold the head safely, and cutting cones are very helpful to hold the bird still and keep your fingers away from the blade.

cutting-cone3              cleaver

There are other humane methods that can be used, but for various reasons, I don’t think are valuable to describe here.  Blunt force trauma is very difficult to do properly, and emotionally disturbing for the person delivering the blow…..the odds of mis-hitting among people who rarely do it are too high for me to recommend it to you.  But, in the hands of an experienced, effective operator, this method is extremely humane, despite the violence of the act.  Carbon Dioxide gas, captive bolt devices, Low Atmospheric stunning, and electrocution are all humane, and you may hear of them, but need far too much equipment, are often too dangerous and need a lot of training to be done right.  Any of these methods, done incorrectly, are inhumane.

Remember….euthanasia is not about making the bird die….it is about how they get there.  I’ve heard of backyard poultry people drowning birds, poisoning them, freezing them and other methods that are NOT humane.  I choose to believe that they didn’t know of better methods, and hope this article helps.

One last point.  Consider what your bird is going through as you are deciding when to euthanize.  Remember that chickens hide pain, even severe pain, very well.  It’s important to realize that it takes a LOT of discomfort for a bird to stop eating and act sick….hunched up in a corner of a coop.  Very often, I feel that more suffering is caused by waiting too long to euthanize than even by people who euthanize incorrectly.  It is part of your responsibility as an owner to care for your birds, and if her situation is painful and seems hopeless, it is time to start seriously considering euthanasia.

Mike the Chicken Vet

 

 

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Why do we keep Chickens Inside

I have been asked by several different people with very diverse backgrounds as to why we HOUSE chickens. People have a Disney moment every time they see a big fluffy chicken scratching around in a dusty yard, or looking ridiculous eating grass in a beautiful sunny field. These idyllic images should be the goal of “farming” everywhere, and folks wonder why on earth this doesn’t happen.
snow chickenHere, in Ontario, Canada, the most obvious reason is just making its reluctant disappearance. Winter and chickens are not the best of friends. Red Jungle Fowl, the predecessors of all laying hens, evolved as (spoiler alert: check out the name) JUNGLE fowl. Not especially tailored to cold weather. Although some breeds have been developed in the northern climates (like Rhode Island Reds, Couchons and Buff Orpingtons, to name a few), they lay far fewer eggs than the modern crosses we use now on commercial farms. Hens cannot handle cold weather well if they are selected for egg production.
Again, the pressures facing professional farmers is different than backyard chicken keepers. If you have 5 hens, and are used to getting 4 or 5 eggs per day, and get 3 or 4 per day in winter, you will say that they never miss a beat. This is a 20% decrease in production, and will destroy a commercial flock…..if you have 20,000 hens, you would be collecting 4,000 eggs less PER DAY. Either we would have egg shortages in the winter, (if we kept the same number of hens we have now), or a glut in the summer (if we had enough hens to supply enough eggs in the winter).

There are other reasons why chickens need shelter. They like it. Chickens are the ultimate prey animal….they have no weapons, they don’t have great camouflage, they are tasty and low in fat (important for predators who are watching their

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

waistlines). Chickens are NOT adventurous, brave or tough….they are, in a word, chicken. It keeps them alive. They have great vision, communicate predator presence very well, are flighty and nervous and very efficiently look for a reason to freak out. Having an enclosed shelter gives them a strong sense of security, especially if it protects them from predators from above. There have been research trials that marked hens with radio-collars that showed that hens given the choice to free-range outside of the barn actually choose not to. Over half the birds is some trials NEVER leave the security of the barn, and many of them spend a lot of time in the doorway….protected, but able to look out. Hens also have a serious aversion to wind, and really don’t like to go outside on windy days.
Hens seem exceptionally sensitive to flying threats, and really appreciate overhead protection. Some of the same studies have shown that range use increases if there is overhead shelter provided. Of course, putting a roof over the range makes it much less Disney-esque, and it is not difficult to imaging this roofed structure eventually gaining some type of walls to keep the rain and wind out….oops, now it’s a barn again.

Speaking of rain….it is another major drawback to range hens. Wet environments are incredible breeding grounds for bacteria, fungi and viruses that can devastate the health of a flock. Again….backyard flocks can work to keep

There is a reason why "mad as a wet hen" is a simile.....

There is a reason why “mad as a wet hen” is a simile…..

a range dry…shifting the area hens have access to, or shovel away the dirty, manure filled mud and replace it with dry, clean fill. Imagine trying to manage the range for a flock of 20,000 birds (I keep using 20,000 birds, since this is the average flock size in Ontario….it is a very small flock size compared to many places). Recommended range availability for laying hens is around 4 square meters per hen (right now, Canada has no explicit range size recommendations, but this number applies to other jurisdictions). For my hypothetical flock, we need 80,000 square meters of land to manage. This is 15 soccer fields to drain, clean, manage and keep attractive to the hens. It isn’t so much that it can’t be done, but it is very complicated and labour intensive.

Another thing that is controlled well indoors is light. Ever since pressure on laying hen farmers in the EU forced hens to be housed with outdoor access, mortality and welfare problems due to pecking and cannibalism has been one of the biggest obstacles facing the farmers and birds. In small groups (ie less than about 25), hens develop a solid “pecking order” that is mostly maintained by postures, feints and threats. In larger groups, dominance pressures more often result in physical attacks and then wounds. The other difficulty caused by daylight is the stimulation to keep birds laying throughout the fall and winter months. Chickens are encouraged to lay by increasing day length, and decreasing day length will push hens out of lay. Because our latitude causes maximum day lengths of over 15 and a half hours, it is necessary to keep the barn lights on for at least 16 hours per day. The further north you go, the longer the longest day is.

Finally, we keep hens indoors to protect them from predators. I’ve discussed problems of predation with many small farmers and backyard keepers. Predation is a very difficult problem….owls, hawks, and eagles from the sky; cats,

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb.

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb almost anything.

dogs, foxes, raccoons, weasels, snakes and even bears from the ground. Latches get undone, fences get burrowed under, and the assault on all the supports, wires and nettings means that there needs to be constant repair. Remember….on a professional farm of 20,000 hens, we are surrounding and covering 15 soccer fields of area. And once a predator finds access to such an easy, tasty meal, they will not leave it or forget it….in fact, in the case of birds, they often recruit friends to help with the harvest.

So, in summary, hens are indoors to decrease disease and discomfort from environmental stresses, reduce injuries from each other and external predators, improve the control of the environment in terms of light intensity and day length. There are other reasons, such as practicality of providing feed and water when the hens are outside, disease transmission from wild animals (Avian Influenza is a big one), and problems caused by foraging (impacted crops, nutrition dilution because of high levels of fiber intake, etc).

I hope this gives non-farmers an insight as to why range hens are a niche market, supplied by farmers who command a significant premium for their product and usually have small farms. Shifting the majority of the professional farms to this strategy of production would be very difficult, and would lead to a lot of problems for the hens as the industry adapted.

Why aren’t there more Chicken Vets?

I have been asked numerous times why there are no vets around who work on backyard chickens.  It’s been suggested that I should specialize in backyard health and make my millions.  There has been an article in the Wall Street Journal no less, decrying the lack of vets with chicken experience (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323527004579081812563033586.html?mod=WSJ_hp_EditorsPicks#articleTabs%3Darticle). 

I will try to tell you why there is a lack of vet care available for your chickens.  Like most real-life problems, it is complicated, involves money, attitudes, history and inertia.  Some ways to approach providing backyarders access to vet care include a backyard poultry only practice, professional poultry vets branching out into backyard flocks, or small animal vets branching out into backyard flocks.  All of these have challenges.  I will give you my top 10 reasons why there is a lack of veterinary care for backyard flocks;

     10) Money

I have worked exclusively with poultry for 15 years now.  I’m happy with my income (unless you happen to be my boss, in which case, I’d like a raise), and I like working with the birds.  I visit about 2 – 3 flocks per day, and I earn hundreds of dollars from each visit (sue me, but I’d like to earn more than a plumber….10 years of post-secondary education left me with a small mortgage, and it should be worth SOMETHING).  Since the flocks I visit have thousands of birds, each visit costs pennies per hen.  Many backyarders won’t be willing to pay $50+ per visit, which is about the minimum I’d need to keep my doors open.

      9) Biosecurity

 I know activists would have you believe that biosecurity is just an excuse to keep professional farms out of the public’s eye, but it is a crucial component of the health programs on all commercial sized farms.   This year alone, I am aware of backyard flocks who have been diagnosed with Avian Influenza, Mycoplasma, Salmonella enteritidis, Infectious Laryingotracheitis, Fowl Cholera and Blackhead…..all of which would be devastating in a professional flock…..as in, people losing their livelihood and home, level of devastation.  Believe it or not, the amount and variety of diseases in backyard flocks dwarf the infections on professional farms, and the risk of carrying diseases is very real.

    8) Liability

I have been asked to do things like prescribe medications or sign export certificates on backyard flocks.  The reality is that, as a professional, every time I sign my name to a certificate, it is on me to make SURE it is true.  So, if you want to move a flock across state lines, and I sign a form saying your flock has shown no signs of disease X in the past 3 months, I need to be SURE that they haven’t.  This means that I need to know you and your flock well, and have multiple visits (costing you $$ multiple times).  If the hens are carrying the disease I stated they were free of, it is ME who is charged with negligence or malpractice.  This is not as big an issue for small animal vets, because the impact of a missed case of kennel cough or FELV isn’t the same as moving the hens that are the start of an agricultural disease (the Avian Influenza outbreak in British Columbia cost an estimated $380 million, and almost definitely started in a backyard duck flock). 

     7) Different type of Medicine

For me, as a commercial vet, I concentrate on keeping flocks healthy.  To do that I do what is called “population medicine”, and am more focussed on the health of the group as opposed to each individual hen.  Sick hens will often be euthanized to be examined and samples taken so the rest of the flock can be appropriately treated.  That model does not work for backyard flocks.  Techniques like exploratory surgery, intravenous fluids, severe wound repair or life support therapy are necessary, even crucial when dealing with backyard hens, but I am not used to performing them, and it is an entirely different mindset.

    6) Interest

Very few small animal vets have any experience or interest in chickens.  They like dogs and cats, and think guinea pigs and hedgehogs are cute, but chickens are alien to almost all of them.  Chickens are so different than the mammalian patients my classmates see that they are very uncomfortable in even attempting to deal with them.  This is a wide generalization, but holds true in most cases.  I know of an injured hen that was flatly refused at a vet clinic because the vet said she “wouldn’t even know where to start”.

     5) Lack of tools

Chickens are no longer expected to be in small groups in North America.  Vaccines come in bottles of 1000, 5000, 10,000 or 25,000 doses, and once opened, need to be used within 2 hours or they don’t work.  (One of the vaccines I use can only be bought in a 25,000 dose bottle).  Even though I want to recommend vaccination of backyard flocks, it is difficult to justify buying 5000 doses of Newcastle Disease vaccine for your 5 hens.  Antibiotics are the same….most come in a pouch that treats 100 gallons of water….once opened, the antibiotic starts to lose efficacy, and should not be stored for later use.

     4) Lack of Numbers

Even if there was a way to provide decent care in a metropolis like Toronto, or New York, that would still only help a very small percentage of the backyard hens…..what about the smaller cities, towns, and even rural flocks (cow and horse vets don’t really have any comfort with chickens either, as a rule).  Unless there is a critical mass of hens, it is very difficult to provide care, regardless of the location.

     3) Chickens are weird

Face it…chickens are weird.  They have an odd social structure that can seriously impact their health, they have a wildly different biology that other pet animals (respiratory, digestive, reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, bone and skin systems are all vastly different than other pets).  It means that a small animal vet cannot apply what he/she knows in other areas to the chicken.  A chinchilla is not that different that a dog or cat, and you can logically adapt treatments if one is brought into your clinic, but a chicken does not fit the model.  At all.

     2) Chickens are food

Another aspect of treating chickens that makes small animal vets uncomfortable is that you don’t (usually) eat your pets.  I am very aware of the human health implications of everything I do on a farm.  I only use antibiotics that I am confident will not contaminate the eggs or meat, or else I know how long that contamination will persist for, and advise against eating the eggs for a period of time.  Small animal vets don’t have this background, and are (rightly) worried about causing residues that make people sick.

    1) Inertia

The number one reason that vet care isn’t more available for backyard chickens is inertia.  “It just isn’t done”.  Like giving women the vote, this is unheard of, and might be the end of civilization as we know it.  Keep asking your vet (and other vets) to look after your hens.  Be willing to pay a little, in order to make him/her think about making it a part of the clinic’s business model.  Be patient if they are slow, or unsure.  Keep trying to make it happen, and in the near future, someone will figure out that treating chickens is not scary or dangerous, and a model for this type of medicine will emerge and become commonplace. 

 

Mike the Chicken Vet

Salmonella in Backyard Flocks

This came across my inbox a little while ago, and I thought I would share it with you.  It is a news article on the uptick in Salmonella infections and illnesses associated with backyard hens.

DENVER – As the urban farming movement continues to grow in Colorado, health officials are raising a red flag about Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.

There is particular concern about people bringing chickens into their homes and treating them as pets or “lap chickens,” complete with chicken diapers.

Mary, a Denver resident who did not want to reveal her last name, has even launched a business selling the diapers.

“They’re just really, really tame, and they want to be near humans,” said Mary, petting her two chickens, Henny and Penny. “I wouldn’t have them in the house all the time, but once in a while it’s nice to let them in.”

But in a CDC warning, health officials said they are investigating two large, multistate outbreaks of Salmonella tied to backyard flocks.

One strain sickened people in 37 states, including 31 people in Colorado. One person died from that strain.

Some people were reportedly “kissing or cuddling with” the birds, according to CDC investigators.

The CDC said even poultry that appears healthy and clean can still be shedding germs that make people sick, and chickens should not be allowed inside people’s homes.

Candice Burns Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Emergening and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases with the CDC, said in an email to 23ABC’s affiliate, 7NEWS: “Just like you wouldn’t walk around your house and touch surfaces with raw, uncooked chicken, you also shouldn’t allow your live poultry to have contact with surfaces in your home.”

In 2012 alone, public health officials uncovered eight outbreaks in which people got sick with germs spread from contact with poultry in backyard flocks.  These outbreaks caused at least 517 illnesses, 93 hospitalizations and fours deaths, according to the CDC.

Health officials said that for every case of Salmonella illness reported to the CDC, there are about 30 more that don’t get reported.

The people most at risk for getting a serious illness from contact with live poultry include young children, people with weakened immune systems and adults older than 65 years.

People become infected with Salmonella germs when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with animal droppings in or around their mouth.

Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths.

“I never had a problem, and I don’t think most people would,” said Mary.

She said there is no difference between her chickens and other bird pets, except her chickens give something back.

“See, there you go,” she said, lifting up a brown egg. “I love fresh eggs.”

Chickens and Salmonella go together like, well my kid’s fingerprints and the iPad.  You can sometimes clean them out, but they will always come back.  Not to mention the E. coli, Pseudemonas, Campylobacter and Clostridium that are often carried silently by apparently healthy hens.  This doesn’t mean your chickens are “dirty bombs” that need to be approached only with a hazmat suit (if you’re bored, google the bacteria that are found in your own mouth…..blech).  The point is, you need to assume that anything the hens have contact with MIGHT be contaminated with potentially sickening bacteria.

Healthy? No.  Child abuse? Maybe. Don't let your chicken lick you, either.

Healthy? No. Child abuse? Maybe. Don’t let your chicken lick you, either.

DON’T lick your chickens…..it’s not healthy, and people will think you’re weird.  You will be swapping bacteria with your hens in any case, but there’s no need to be that direct.  Remember, we become immune to what we are in contact with…this means that the bacteria in your backyard will set up an accommodation with you, and you will usually cope with it fine.  This is not necessarily true of visitors.

2

Most cleaners are effective.  Most contamination is missed, rather than being able to survive cleaning.

Most cleaners are effective. Most contamination is missed, rather than being able to survive cleaning.

So, keep it in mind….chickens, like all animals are a source for bacteria.  Take reasonable precautions, and don’t become blasé about it.   Mention to your doctor that you have chickens if you have a gut infection.  Wash your hands.  Clean any surface your chickens aren’t supposed to be on (ie, the sink, if you give one a bath). Only eat un-cracked eggs.  Handle soiled eggs appropriately.  Inform people who eat your eggs that they are from your flock, and not from a store.

Simple things.  Hopefully a waste of time, but if not, it may save you some unpleasantness.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Major US Study on Backyard Flocks

Through my many associations, I become aware of studies and surveys on all things chicken.  Recently, I had a study passed on to me that dealt with the demographics of backyard poultry owners.  It was performed by the National Animal Health Monitoring System, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture.  They talked about the need to know about the location and number of backyard flocks in terms of disease control (they ARE an animal health monitoring system….it’s what they do) but what interested me most was the demographic of the typical American Backyarder.  Surveys were performed in Miami, Denver, LA and New York.

Here are a few highlights from the study:

 Overall, 0.8 percent of all households (0.6 percent of all households excluding single-family homes on 1 acre or more) owned chickens. Chickens were owned on 4.3 percent of single-family homes on 1 acre or more. Excluding single-family homes on 1 acre or more, the percentage of households with chickens ranged from 0.1 percent in New York City to 1.3 percent in Miami.

 While less than 1 percent of households had chickens, nearly 4 percent of households without chickens planned to have chickens within the next 5 years, illustrating the growing acceptance of urban farming (range: 2.0 percent of households in New York City to 7.4 percent in Denver).

 Overall, about 4 of 10 respondents were in favor of allowing chickens in their communities and would not mind if their neighbors owned chickens (44.4 and 39.3 percent, respectively). These percentages were inversely related to the age of the respondent. Denver had the highest percentage of respondents in favor of allowing chickens in the community (62.5 percent).

 Although over half of respondents (55.6 percent) believed that chickens in urban areas will lead to more illnesses in humans, about two-thirds of respondents in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City and three-fourths of respondents in Denver believed that eggs from home-raised chickens are better for you than eggs purchased at a grocery store. Denver respondents were the least likely to believe that chickens in urban areas will lead to more illnesses in humans.

Like any research paper on statistics, this one was dry reading, and some of the inferences could be questioned, but I found it fascinating that a) backyard chickens are a large enough sector to attract the interest of a national agency b) that the projected increase in backyard flocks is over 400% in the next 5 years, and c) that it is younger people that are driving the trend of having urban chickens.  All these factors point to a strong future for the backyard chicken movement in the future.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Lungs

Anyone who knows me knows of my hate-hate relationship with running.  I have started running in the past year, and have decided that it is the most ridiculous activity known to man.  You can’t score goals, you can’t look cool, and you will NEVER make it to Sportcenter (Usain Bolt excluded….I mean….he IS Usain Bolt).

The main reason I hate running is because I suck at it.  I’m strong, but my aerobic capacity is lousy.  I wish I was a bird.  If I was a bird, my trachea (windpipe) would be 2.7 times as large, reducing air resistance.  My rate of breathing would be about 1/3 of what it is currently, and I would take much bigger breaths.  This is the first part of the system that makes the bird respiratory system much more efficient at gas exchange than mammals (especially this particular mammal).

chicken airsacs

Location of Air Sacs in a hen

Chickens also have structures called air sacs.  The way to think of them are a bit like bagpipes…..they act as reservoirs for air so that there is constantly fresh air passing through the hens lungs.  A bird’s respiratory cycle is much more complicated than ours….we inhale into a big, complicated balloon, pause, and then push the air out.  As the air sits in the tiny air sacs (called alveoli), oxygen diffuses into the blood, and CO2 diffuses out.   Our alveoli are like a bunch of grapes….blind ended sacs that expand and contract as air comes in and out.  During the pause between breaths, the oxygen concentrations of the gasses change, and diffusion becomes slower. In hens, it goes like this….INHALE – air goes into the lungs and the abdominal air sacs.  EXHALE – air leaves the cranial, clavicular and cervical air sacs.  PAUSE – air goes from lungs to front air sacs while air is travelling from abdominal air sacs to the lungs.  Repeat as necessary.The result of these airbags is that there is a constant, one way flow through the lungs, and every part of the lung is constantly filled with fresh, fully oxygenated air.  Chickens have no alveoli…they have a network of tiny tubes where the air never stops flowing.

Diagram of airflow....not simple, but effecive

Diagram of airflow….not simple, but effecive

Hens have other adaptations too.  Birds have hollow bones, and the front air sacs communicate with the wing bones and the clavicles.  Thus, chickens even use their bones to breathe!  At the microscopic level, the point at which the oxygen enters the blood (and CO2 leaves it) is different too.  Cross current exchange where blood travels at 90 degrees to the airflow in the tiny lung tubes….makes for much more efficient exchange because the same air crosses blood vessels several times, instead of just once as in us mammals.  Also, the thickness of the tissues between the blood and the air is less than half that in mammals of similar sizes.Chickens have no diaphragm, which is the muscle we use to expand our chest cavity downwards.  This has major implications if you are handling chickens, especially small ones.  Their keel bone (Breast bone) MUST be able to move, or they can’t inhale.  Holding or wrapping a chicken  too tightly will stop her from breathing.  This is really important when children are around the hens, since a hug that would work for Fido will not work for chickens.So, in summary…birds breathe slower, deeper and more efficiently.  They have one way flow of air through their lungs through the adaptation of air sacs that act as bellows to constantly supply fresh air to the blood, even when the hen is not inhaling.This is why birds have such an efficient respiratory system, and why aerobic exercise is so much easier for them.When I am about 2 miles into a run, I really hate chickens. Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Guts

As promised, I am starting a description of the different systems inside the modern chicken.  I thought I’d start with a description of the intestinal tract of a hen. From beak to butt, there are a lot of specializations that allow chickens to magically convert grubs, worms, corn, grains and calcium into eggs…one of the most nutritionally dense foodstuffs in nature.

Not a pretty picture, but shows the tongue and choanal slit well

First off, it is always amazing to me that people are surprised to find that chickens have triangular tongues. What other shape could it be? There is also a slit (called a choanal slit) in the roof of the top beak. It is here that many substances that are eaten and drank are exposed to the immune system. The triangular tongue is very poor at sensing taste. The human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds, cows have about 20,000, and chickens have 25. Not 25,000….25. Chickens, like most birds, rely heavily on their eyes to locate food, and don’t invest a lot of brain space to taste. It explains some of the things they are willing to eat!!  You will also notice the scarcity of teeth. (Yes, your grandmother was right….hens teeth ARE rare).   More on this later.

After the food passes through the beak mostly untasted, it passes through the esophagus, a 3″ muscular tube, until it is deposited into the crop.  The crop is basically a holding tank for food and water.  It is muscular, but weak.  If a Anatomy-of-the-chicken-with-text

chicken eats things that are difficult to pass through the crop (like long blades of grass or hay), or the stuff in the crop gets too dried out, you get impacted crops.  If the contents stay there too long and start to rot, sour crop can result.  To help with either of these problems, it is important first to get the offending material out of the crop, and allow the muscles to relax, and the interior of the crop to become normal.

I know, its gross, but I’m a vet…this is what I do. Plus it gives you a good idea how things really look.

The the food is now the consistency of gruel and enters the proventriculus.  This stomach is similar to ours.  It secretes acids and enzymes and starts actively breaking down the food.  The food now enters the gizzard, which is a very muscular organ that is lined with a tough substance called koilin.  Inside the gizzard, the hen stores small pebbles.  These pebbles get rolled around inside the gizzard through the muscular contractions, and the action is like a grist mill.  Remember the part about the lack of teeth?  This is the compensation.  Stones are lighter than teeth, because you don’t need too many of them, since the feed is already pre-softened by soaking in the crop.  In professional farms, the stones are provided as pieces of oyster shell or limestone, both of which also act as a source of calcium for egg-shell and bone strength.

Once through the gizzard, the gut contents are like a very moist paste, very uniform, and still smelling like chicken feed.  It enters the small intestine, where the pancreas and the gall bladder add their contributions of enzymes and bile acids respectively.  The food is now basically reduced into its components.  For the next 30 cm or so, the protein, fats, sugars and other nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.  This is the function of the small intestine.  You can imagine, if there is some problem with the intestine, absorption will be reduced, and the volume of manure will increase…..this is the root cause of many cases of diarrhea.  The gut contents are now a darker brown, and more dense and pasty…pretty much half-way between feed and poo.

The food now enters the two cecums (called cecae when plura….great word to remember for Scrabble).  The primary functions of the cecae are to absorb

Normal Cecal Dropping
Normal Cecal Dropping
normal dropping

Normal Dropping

water and to act as an immune organ.   The contents of these are fairly light….lighter than normal chicken poo.  Every couple of days, the cecae empty themselves, resulting in a cecal dropping, which is sticky, somewhat foamy, and lighter in colour.  These droppings are very distinct, and completely normal.  It also explains why anything that stimulates the immune system can result in diarrhea, since the same organ is responsible for water resorption from the gut contents.The final step in this process is the ejection of the manure (sometimes with a fair bit of velocity!).  The interesting part of this is that birds have “vents”.  That means that the urinary tract, reproductive tract and gastrointestinal tract all leave the body through the same orifice.  Meaning, everything comes out of the same hole…..sometimes at the same time.  That is why the normal manure has the white, uric acid cap on it…that is the bird’s version of urine.  Importantly, it is also a source of manure contamination of eggs, especially if the hens are sick and have loose manure.  I have talked about safe egg handling previously, but I would like to re-emphasize the importance of this.

All in all, it takes around 3 hours for a piece of chicken feed to become chicken manure.  For humans, gut passage time is around 2 days. This speedy transit time is important for….wait for it…..flight.  Birds will actually spend a fair bit of time with almost nothing in their guts….thus lighter and more able to fly.  But, this short passage time means that diets that are high in indigestible components will seriously increase the fecal volume, since there isn’t time to break down the more fibrous bits.

So, that is the story of  chicken feed becoming raw materials for eggs and the necessary body processes that support the chicken in everything she does.  Remember that bird digestion is quite different from mammalian digestion, and some of the gut problems you might see in a small (or large) flock will show certain symptoms because of the way the gut works.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What makes a chicken?

I am starting  a short series of posts that will describe some of the physiology, anatomy, and behaviour of the modern chicken.  This has been done many times before, by people more qualified than I am….in greater detail….likely more accurately….and with far more authority.  They are called textbooks.

The difference is, I am going to make it interesting, useful, and hopefully fun.  Oh, and it will be in the english that normal humans speak.  I also intend to explain some of the reasons why chickens are the way they are….how some of the attributes of “chicken-ness” are useful for the birds.  The aim of the series is to give the readers some tools to problem solve issues that may crop up in their flock (pardon the pun…..see, entertaining all ready!).  If you know how the guts of a hen works, you have an idea as to what might be going wrong when you see diarrhea or blood in the droppings.  At the very least, it will give you another way to think about the way a hen works.

To start, I will talk about some of the striking factors that make chickens the way they are, and why they are that way.

Birds are strange creatures….feathers, eggs, hollow bones, no teeth, don’t produce urine, different red blood cells, all of which I will discuss later.  All of these various oddities work together to allow one thing….flight.  It seems like the vast majority of adaptations that the successful dinosaurs made revolve around the ability to fly.  Feathers are lighter than hair, and insulate better.  Bone marrow is heavy, and provides little structural integrity.  Teeth are heavy, and carrying around a bag of urine inside your body definitely crimps your ability to soar.  Red blood cells that have nuclei (the difference between bird and mammal blood cells) are more efficient at carrying oxygen and are quicker to produces…making bird blood more able to support the high metabolic rate needed to stay aloft.  Getting the sugar shakes at 250 feet up is not an evolutionary advantage.

Chickens are omnivorous, able (and willing) to eat almost anything.  They have a very short digestive tract (again, lighter), that is very efficient at extracting nutrients from whatever they put in their beaks.

Birds have lung adaptations, great eyesight, and lay eggs…..all of which make flight possible.  (I am saying these like they are facts, but in reality, they might be adaptations that just followed along from their dinosaur heritage, and weren’t lost…..dinosaurs laid eggs and didn’t fly…..but it makes a good story, and is plausible).

Anyways….I will be developing the truly informative stuff over the next little while.  I hope it is useful to you, and gives you a different way to look at and evaluate the way your hens interact with the world.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Bird Health Awareness Week

Anyone who has followed this blog at all knows that my two main professional  passions are poultry health and welfare.  Since these two issues are so closely interdependent, anything that improves one will often improve the other.  In this vein, I am forwarding some information that I came across from our friends to the south.

Most agricultural organizations, including all the ones I work with, are very aware of the relationship between small, backyard flocks and professional farms in the area.  The farmers spend a lot of time, effort and money maintaining biosecurity to keep their flocks healthy, but the fact remains that any diseases circulating in backyard flocks is a threat to the people who make their living by caring for hens.  For this reason, most of the poultry groups are willing to extend expertise and advice to the people who keep hens as a hobby.   I hope the following information helps anyone with an interest in poultry, whether their flock is small or large.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture issued the following news release:

Bird Health Awareness Week is Feb. 24 through March 2, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) Animal Health Section urges owners ofbackyard poultry flocks – or those thinking of starting one – to make sure they follow our six steps for keeping poultry healthy.

“Poultry is one of Maryland’s most important agricultural commodities, and we want to keep them all healthy, whether they are commercial, or fair and show, orbackyard flocks,” said State Veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus. “Bird Health Awareness Week is a good time to remind everyone of the important but easy steps they can take to have the most positive and successful experience raising poultry. It is also a good time to remind people that they must register their flocks with MDA so that we can contact them and help them if a disease outbreak were to occur. “

The following are MDA’s Six Steps to a Healthy Flock.

Step 1. Select Healthy Birds. MDA urges citizens to purchasechickens only from hatcheries that are certified by the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) and hold a permit from MDA. NPIP hatcheries follow strict biosecurity practices, maintain detailed records of where their chicks come from, and have had their sites and chickens tested for particularly debilitating diseases. Anyone who sells or distributes hatchingeggs, live poultry and anyone who operates a hatchery in Maryland must meet NPIP standards and hold a permit from MDA. Residents are warned not to buy chicks that are sold online and delivered through the mail by uncertified and unapproved hatcheries. The practice is not only illegal but can be deadly to your flock. Find an NPIP hatchery. (www.aphis.usda.gov»)

Step 2. Register your flock with MDA.Backyard flock owners, who generally keep birds as pets or for private use of theireggs, are required, by law, to register their location with MDA. In the event of a disease outbreak, MDA will immediately contact all flock owners who might be infected and provide them with information and instructions about the specific precautions they need to take to keep their birds and families healthy. Flock owners not on the registry may never know a disease is rampant until their flock dies. Flock owners who are not registered put their neighbors’ flocks – and maybe even the state’s poultry industry – at risk. The Maryland General Assembly created the mandatory poultry registration program in response to the 2004 avian influenza outbreak on Delmarva. There are currently 3,948 flocks registered in Maryland. The registry is confidential, free and easy. For more information and to register (mda.maryland.gov») .

Step 3. Clean hands, boots, clothes, equipment, and housing to prevent disease. Raising flocks ofchickens, like raising any other pet, requires a certain amount of effort and vigilance if the animals and their owners are to stay healthy. Flock owners need to follow basic bio-security measures from the beginning to ensure their birds and families stay healthy. For more information about biosecurity measures. (www.aphis.usda.gov»)

Step 4. Quarantine any new or sick birds. Healthy flocks can be ravaged, even lost entirely, by one sick chick. Keep new chicks quarantined for at least 21 days until you’re sure they’re healthy. Veterinarians who treat pets do not usually treat poultry or livestock, but there are avian vets in Maryland who can be contacted if your flock is sick. To find an avian veterinarian, go to the Association of Avian Veterinarians website. (www.aav.org»)

Step 5. Test poultry before exhibition. All animals, not just poultry, that are shown at exhibitions must meet animal health requirements. Some requirements are different for in-state and out-of-state animals. Poultry, for instance, must be tested for PullorumTyphoid prior to an exhibit. For more info on exhibition requirements. (mda.maryland.gov») [1].pdf)

Step 6. Report sick birds to MDA Animal Health. Despite the best efforts of some flock owners,chickens sometimes do get sick and die unexpectedly. MDA urges flock owners to report sick birds to the agency if more than one bird in a flock is ill since that could be the start of a devastating outbreak. Call MDA Animal Health Program at 410-841-5810 to report an unusual disease in a flock. Unusual symptoms that may indicate your chicken is sick and should be reported include:

– Sneezing, gasping for air, coughing and nasal discharge

– Watery and green discharge

– Lack of energy and poor appetite

– Drop in egg production, soft or thin shells, misshapen eggs

– Swelling around the eyes, neck and head

– Purple discoloration of wattles, combs and legs

– Tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck or lack of movement.

Want to learn more?

– Visit the MDA website (mda.maryland.gov»)

– Visit the USDA’s Animal Health website for more information: (www.aphis.usda.gov»)

– Participate in USDA’s Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service’s free webinar, “Growing Chicks Into HealthyChickens: Getting Ready for Spring,” on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. Register here. (www.aphis.usda.gov»)

– For regular tips on how to keep your birds safe and healthy, follow the APHIS’ Biosecurity for Birds campaign on Twitter @Healthy_Harry

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Cinema

Hi Everyone;

I apologize for the lack of attention I have been giving to my blog lately….things have been busy, but that’s no excuse.  I have been very active with chickens, however, and today was no exception.  I got the opportunity to spend the morning with Norm Saito at the Ancaster Fall Fair (http://www.ancasteragriculturalsociety.ca/Pages/Fair/fairframe.htm) .  Many thanks to the fair organizers for all their help and accommodation.  Also thanks to the Egg Farmers of Ontario for putting me in contact with Norm in the first place.  I am impressed with the community outreach that the EFO is doing, trying to let people in the province know about poultry of all types.  They have the idea that letting urbanites know more about poultry can do nothing but improve the relationships the farmers have with the public, and I couldn’t agree more.

Norm Saito….the depth of knowledge this man has on various breeds and standards for fancy chickens was staggering.

Norm has been a judge of fancy chickens for over 40 years throughout North America.  He is the end-all and be-all of knowledge regarding Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Polish, Wyandottes, Minorcas, and Rhode Island Reds.  He also judges turkeys, peafowl, guinea fowl, ducks, and rabbits.  His background information on where each bird origionated….both geographically and through history (how bantam chickens were bred to be smaller versions of regular hens, and how many of the sport breeds are descendants of fighting cocks, once fighting became socially unacceptable) was amazing. 

We had a great time “talking turkey” for most of the morning.  He started his career with fancy chickens when his son was in Cubs, and wanted to get his “pet keeping” badge.  Norm and his son decided they wanted a chicken, so they purchased Sylvester, who lived in their basement until they moved.  The family loved the bird by then, and couldn’t leave him behind, so Sylvester came along, and became the base for a flock of fancy chickens that eventually numbered in the hundreds.

The creative process…it is WAY more complicated than I ever thought!

For anyone not familiar with video production, it is a LOT more complicated than I ever thought.  Worrying about background noises, direction of sunshine, background composition, etc. is really involved.  Plus, once I knew what I wanted to say, getting the phrasing right, and saying it in a way that sounded somewhat coherent was tougher than you’d believe.  I will be posting the interview video in a little while, once it is edited, and hopefully you will have no idea how many mistakes went into each of the little segments.

Hopefully there will be some information and insights that are of interest to people who raise and show these “beauty queen” chickens.  I don’t know how many of you have had the chance to see behind the scenes  to see how a fair poultry show is judged, but I sure am glad I got a chance to see it!

Winner in the Polish class….one of the stars of the video

  Mike the Chicken Vet